Tale Of The Tape: Patriots' O vs. 'Hawks D

In past weeks, SeahawkFootball.com has been joined by others among the Scout.com community in a feature called "Speaking with the Enemy." This week, Christopher Simoneau of PatriotsInsider.com and I preview Super Bowl XLIX. Today's matchup, the Patriots' offense against the Seahawks' defense:

New England's Offense:

The Patriots offense was once again amongst the tops in the NFL, finishing fourth in the league in scoring with 29.2 yards per game. From a yardage standpoint, New England was slightly down from years past, averaging 365.5 total yards per game, which placed them 11th in the NFL. New England was once again defined by the passing game, averaging 257.6 yards per game. Tom Brady had another excellent season, albeit after a rough opening month, and finished with 4,109 yards, 33 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

The best attribute of the New England passing game in 2014 is balance. Three different players (Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Brandon LaFell) finished with over 70 catches and 900 yards, which is a first in Patriot history. Shane Vereen also added 52 catches out of the backfield and second year tight end Tim Wright contributed six touchdowns on only 26 catches. Danny Amendola has become a weapon for Brady to lean on in the playoffs, picking up six catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns. Of course, the key to the passing game is Rob Gronkowski, a giant tight end with not only great athleticism but also off the charts awareness. How the Seattle secondary goes about defending Gronkowski will have a trickledown effect on the rest of the receiving core.

The Patriots offensive line went through some growing pains in the first month of the season, but since then, they’ve been excellent. New England did allow 22 sacks in 2014, but eight of those sacks came over the final two games when key players (Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer) were out with injury. Not only did the line do a good job this year, they dealt with strong pass rushes like Buffalo, New York, Miami and Baltimore, so they’re battle tested heading into the Super Bowl. Rookie center Bryan Stork was lost before halftime in the Divisional round vs. Baltimore, but he has been practicing all week and is ready to go for the Super Bowl. Ryan Wendell can kick back out to guard, which solidifies the interior of the Patriots line. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has been absolutely dominant in the playoffs, highlighted by his complete whitewashing of Elvis Dumervil.

The Patriots running game was a bit inconsistent in 2014, but a lot of that had to do with game plan and opponent. When New England faced Indianapolis, they ran all over them, just like they did against Cincinnati (220 yards) Minnesota (150 yards) Chicago (122) and Miami (108). Seattle allows just over 80 yards per game, ranked third in the NFL, so it will be very tough to run the ball on Sunday. New England ran for 107.9 yards per game, which ranked them 18th in the NFL. Lead rusher Jonas Gray ran for 412 yards on 89 carries, an average of 4.6 yards per carry, but let’s not forget that 202 of those yards came in one game. Shane Vereen ran for 391 yards on 96 carries, an average of 4.1 yards per carry.

Vereen is good on draws and outside runs, but he struggles to run between the tackles. He could add an element with the screen game, but Seattle is fast and smart, so although the screen game seems like it would work, it won’t be as effective as some may think. LeGarrette Blount carried the ball 60 times for 281 yards and last week he tore apart the Colts, but the running back to watch for on Sunday is the unheralded Brandon Bolden. Bolden only had 89 yards on 28 carries in 2014, but his combination of size and speed gives the Patriots their best shot at running the ball with success. Blount will be a factor though, because when he does get momentum, he is very hard to stop. I expect the Patriots to do most of their damage through the air, but if the running game can step up, it will make Brady, Gronkowski and the passing game even more dangerous.

Seattle's Defense:

The Seahawks finished No. 1 in the NFL in Total Defense in 2014 and it wasn't close, allowing 267.1 yards per game - 33.8 yards less than the No. 2 ranked Detroit. To put that in perspective, if adding 33.8 yards to the Lions' average of 300.9 total yards allowed per game, Detroit would have ranked eighth.

On the surface, playing in the relatively offensively-deprived NFC West might appear to pad Seattle's statistics. Consider, however, that the Seahawks often held significant leads, thereby inviting teams to build the meaningless passing statistics at the end of games in an attempt to get back into the game. When opponents become one dimensional, the Seahawks' predatory tendencies are at their most lethal.

The return to health of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and strong safety Kam Chancellor spearheaded Seattle's current eight game winning streak, helping the Seahawks allow an average of just 75.42 rushing yards during that span. It isn't like Seattle allowed massive rushing yardage prior to their All-Pro defenders return. Seattle ranked third in the NFL with 81.5 rushing yards allowed for the season.

As a group, the Legion of Boom certainly deserves most of the attention. Free safety Earl Thomas is vital to the club's success because his incredible range makes Seattle perhaps less vulnerable to deep verticals and post routes than any other club in the league. That's significant, given that these routes generally result in more touchdown passes than any other. Chancellor is the enforcer on crossing routes. Few slot receivers possess the courage to cross the middle in front of him... at least not twice.

Richard Sherman deserves the credit he's received as one of the elite corners in the league. He's much more fluid than his lanky frame looks and possesses both excellent route recognition and ball-skills due to his experience playing wide receiver at Stanford. Sherman has 24 interceptions since entering the NFL in 2011 - that's eight more than his closest competitor. Brady's Hall of Fame resume speaks for itself. He isn't afraid to throw against any corner. If Brady is going to challenge Sherman in the Super Bowl, though, he'd be advised to do so on quick crossers, rather than attempting to challenge deep - where Sherman's length and poise with the ball in the air make him as likely to catch the ball as most receivers.

A potentially very interesting matchup could occur in the slot between New England's Edelman and Amendola against Seattle's underrated nickel corners Jeremy Lane and Marcus Burley. Lane, like normal starting corner Byron Maxwell, is more physical than Sherman. Both are quick and very aggressive.

Of course, for football purists, the most interesting battles could be on the line of scrimmage. The Seahawks will challenge New England's tackles with undersized speed rushers Cliff Avril and O'Brien Schofield, as well as Irvin, on occasion. The matchup to watch in this contest, however, could be versatile defensive lineman Michael Bennett against Stork, New England's rookie center. Bennett possesses extraordinary quickness but he's proven vulnerable to off-sides penalties, which the Patriots will undoubtedly attempt to exploit by changing the Brady's cadence and the club's personnel packages. From a statistical standpoint, Seattle's 37 sacks don't look that imposing. That total ranks 20th in the league.

It might surprise some to learn that some inside the organization feel that sacks are one of the more overrated statistics in football, however. The Seahawks believe that by forcing quarterbacks to re-set, they are much more likely to force inaccurate passes. As such, Seattle is often very nearly as happy with quarterback hurries as they are sacks. In terms of run defense, Seattle is led by lanky run-stuffers Kevin Williams and Tony McDaniel, each of whom are frequently asked to take on multiple blockers to free the Seahawks speedy linebackers. Williams, in particular, has exceeded expectations in stepping in at nose guard after Brandon Mebane went down with a torn hamstring November 9. Though the six-time Pro Bowler saw some action in this capacity during his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings, the 6-5, 311 pounder has a much different build than Mebane (6-1, 311), utilizing his upper body strength and savvy, rather than leverage to hold up at the point.

An underrated element of Seattle's defense is their outside linebackers. K.J. Wright's agility and length has made him Seattle's top cover linebacker in the past. Bruce Irvin deserves a great deal of credit, as he entered the league as a terrific speed rusher, but has really taken another step this season in coverage, showing fluidity, awareness and soft hands. While each has performed well this season, if there is an area in which Seattle has proven vulnerable this season, it has been against tight ends. Of the 17 passing touchdowns that Seattle has given up this season, 11 of them have come against tight ends. Needless, to say, Seattle will pay a lot of attention to Gronkowski.

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